Fort Vancouver
Historic Structures Report
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Volume II


History and location

The business of the Columbia District required the use of large quantities of saddlery, harness, and pack gear of all sorts The annual brigades to the Snake Country and California perhaps were the best-known consumers of such equipment, but the long horse trains that carried in the annual outfits at least part of the way to Nisqually, New Caledonia, and other posts and brought out the fur returns probably employed even more gear. The oxen that dragged logs for new construction and for the sawmills required harness, and the animals used for ploughing, harvesting, and hauling about the farms and depot created another heavy demand.

From the start of the Company's operations on the Pacific Slope much of the requirement was met by local manufacture, both at the depot and at the individual posts. But sizable quantities of harness were imported from Europe. In 1842 the Governor and Committee in London felt it necessary to call Chief Factor McLoughlin's attention to the disadvantages of the latter practice. "We cannot help noticing," they wrote, "the heavy outlay, incurred of late years in the purchase of Agricultural implements threshing machines, horse tackle &c &c, which it is desirable to reduce as much as possible: the wood work of Ploughs, we think ought to be prepared in the country, likewise horse collars, hames and harness." [1]

Obviously, there must have been a harness shop at Fort Vancouver practically from its beginning in 1825, but no indication of its exact location during the earlier years has yet been found. Perhaps it was situated outside the stockade as late as 1841, because the list of buildings inside the fort prepared by Lt. George Foster Emmons on July 25 of that year makes no mention of a harness shop or saddler's shop (see Plate III, vol. I).

The first evidence of the existence within the pickets of a structure devoted to the making of horse and draft animal equipment is found in the Vavasour ground plan of late 1845, which shows a "Harness Shop" located between the Big House Kitchen and the Bakery in the northeast corner of the stockade enclosure (Plate VI, vol. I). To be more precise, the Harness Shop was, according to Vavasour, about fifteen feet south of the north stockade wall, about twenty-five feet east of the Kitchen, and about thirty-five feet west of the "Bake House." The site of this 1845 Harness Shop is today identified as Building No. 19 on the site plan of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

It will be recalled from Chapter IV on the Bakery, in volume I of this study, that the site of the 1845 Harness Shop had been occupied in 1841 by a building of approximately the same size and shape, which Emmons identified as the "Bakery" (see Plate III, vol. I). Dating from about 1835-37, the structure functioned as a bakehouse until the late summer of 1844, when evidently the oven or ovens were demolished and the usable brick employed in the construction of the ovens in the new bakery that stood some few yards to the southeast. [2]

Very probably when the ca. 1836-44 Bakery was vacated, the structure was transformed into a harness shop. The other possibility--that the old bakery may have been torn down and replaced by a harness shop of about the same size built on its site--does not seem quite as likely.

The Covington map of 1846 or somewhat later does not identify individual structures within the stockade, but it shows what clearly was Vavasour's "Harness Shop" as still standing (Plate XIII, vol. I). The Hudson's Bay Company's inventory of fort structures made in late 1846 and early 1847 lists a "Saddlers Shop" of forty by twenty-five feet. [3] These dimensions agree exactly with those given on the Vavasour plan. The George Gibbs pencil sketch of July 2, 1851, pictures what can only have been the same structure (second building from the left behind the palisade in Plate XIII, vol. I).

By 1854, however, the situation in the northeastern corner of the fort had altered considerably. The Harness Shop, oriented east and west as it had been from its beginning, can still be identified on the carefully made Bonneville survey of that year (Plate XIX, vol. I), but it was closely hemmed in on both sides by new structures. Almost immediately to the west was a small building that can be identified as the post-1852 Kitchen for the Big House. [4] A north-south-oriented structure directly east of the Harness Shop has not yet been identified (the Wash House had burned in 1852).

About this same time there appears to have been another change of function for the Harness Shop building. On January 23, 1854, a board of United States Army officers made an appraisal of Company buildings at Fort Vancouver. No structure designated as a Harness Shop was mentioned in their report, although because the list was not complete this fact is no proof that the Harness Shop had disappeared or ceased to operate. But for the first time in the sources examined for this study, a structure described as the "butcher's shop" is mentioned. [5]

In this connection it may or may not be significant that in June 1853 the United States Army purchased, among other items required for an exploring expedition, about fifty saddles from the Hudson's Bay Company store at Fort Vancouver. This fact does not necessarily imply that the Harness Shop was operating at that time, because the saddles, which proved to be "perfectly worthless," may have represented old stock. [6]

In an attempt to clarify this situation, one must jump ahead several years to June 15, 1860, when another board of army officers appraised the buildings within the old fort. Their map, which seems to have been reasonably accurate though somewhat diagrammatic in certain respects, does not show a harness shop. It depicts only one building--a small, square structure--between the Kitchen and the Bakery. This building was identified as a "Butcher shop &c, in a ruinous condition" (see Plate XXX, vol. I). [7]

It is not by any means certain that this small butcher shop of 1860, which measured about twenty-five feet square if the board's diagram was accurate, was the former Harness Shop or even part of it, though the butcher shop certainly occupied the same site. But the 1860 appraisal does demonstrate that the Harness Shop had long ceased to function in that location and that a butcher shop, probably since about 1853 or 1854, had operated in the same general area.

In 1866 Dugald Mactavish, a longtime Company employee, testified that a saddler's shop existed at Fort Vancouver as late as 1858. Such could have been the case, but he did not indicate that it was then in the same building as it had been in 1845 or 1846. At any rate, Mactavish's testimony is not as disinterested as could be desired, and his memory was faulty in several instances. [8]

Artifacts recovered on the site of the building during excavations conducted during the spring of 1971 convinced the archeologists that the Harness Shop of 1845 was converted to a butcher shop about 1853 and continued to serve that function until mid-1860. "Items suggestive of harness and light wagon repairs" were recovered on the Harness Shop site, but, Messrs. John J. Hoffman and Lester A. Ross concluded, "much of this evidence was overshadowed by culinary items strewn about the area." In other words, bones of cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, and fowl seemed to point to butchering as the last Company use of the site. [9] The archeologists did state, however, that the excavated evidence for this conversion was "equivocal." [10]

That harness making was discontinued or moved to another location about 1853 or 1854 seems probable from both the historical and the archeological evidence. Equally apparent is the fact that a butcher shop was established in the same section of the fort at about the same time. But what is not so clear, to this writer at least, is whether the butcher shop actually occupied the old Harness Shop structure.

The reasons for this doubt can be understood when one examines several of the maps of the fort area for the period 1854 to 1860. These plans are nearly all small in scale and perhaps do not accurately depict the minor buildings. But beginning with the original Bonneville "Plan of Survey" (Plate XIX, vol. I) and extending through the "Map of the Military Reservation at Fort Vancouver" surveyed under the direction of Capt. George Thom in 1859 (Plate XXIV, vol. I), plans of the fort generally, though not always, show two small buildings between the Kitchen and the Bakery in the place of Vavasour's rather large one. For example, the unsigned 1855 "Topographical Sketch of Fort Vancouver and Environs" (Plate, XXIII, vol. I) shows two small structures in the Harness Shop location, but both are oriented north and south. The Thom survey of 1859 places two small, square buildings on the general Harness Shop site. In neither of these surveys is an east-west oriented structure like the 1845 Harness Shop depicted. And, as has been seen, by mid-1860 one of the smaller structures had disappeared, and the survivor was identified as a butcher shop.

Of the many possible explanations for this confusing picture, two seem most likely in the opinion of the writer. Either the old Harness Shop was replaced around 1854 by two smaller structures, or the saddler's shop may have been reduced in size about that time and only one additional building constructed on or near its original site. In either case, one of the structures was employed as a butcher's shop; it is quite possible that harness-making activities continued in the other.

Unfortunately, the northeastern sector of the fort enclosure was so much disturbed by military and other activities after the Company abandoned the post that only a "bewildering maze of remains" remained to be uncovered by twentieth-century archeologists. [11] Thus archeology, while it was able to establish the location and size of the oven foundation of the ca. 1836-44 Bakery, the chimney location and approximate size of the post-1852 Kitchen, and a few remnants of the Wash House, could throw very little light upon the exact size and structure of the 1845 Harness Shop or upon the succession of buildings that occupied the northeast corner after 1854. [12] Therefore, unless additional documentary or pictorial sources come to light in the future, all that can be known about the physical history of the Harness Shop appears to be summarized in this account.

Rather strangely, the personnel rosters for the Fort Vancouver Depot and Columbia District "General Charges" for Outfit 1845 list no person identified as a saddler or harness maker.

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2003